Most of my life I’ve been behind the desk, not at the white board. In Malaysia I’ve been learning how to teach and what it means to be a teacher.

One day I had some particularly rowdy boys in the back of class who wouldn’t listen, were rude, and wouldn’t do their work. I walked into the English office, plopped down and said: “HOW do I get ANYTHING through to the students if they don’t want to LISTEN?!” My wise teacher friends replied:

“They won’t listen to you until they like you. You must first win them over, make them admire you and like spending time with you, then they will respect you and listen to you.”

How completely Machiavellian. Whether or not The Prince was written as a satire or as serious guidance for leaders, it 100% applies to modern day Malaysian high school.

Machiavelli was all about the idea that a ruler’s relationship with his subjects is one of love (amare), fear (temere), or hate (odiare). An effective leader must be loved or feared, but never hated.

Subjects will be loyal if they love you because they think you’re a person with admirable qualities who keeps their interests in mind. If you can develop meaning relationships with your students based on mutual trust, they will have respect and affection for you and behave in class.

They will also be loyal if they fear you. A very strict teacher who is fair but not overly nurturing will have respect and order in the classroom. If students have very clear expectations of what good and bad behavior will earn them, they tend to opt for the reward rather than the punishment.

Machiavelli warned that if the prince’s subjects feel mistreated, they may begin to hate him. Lacking in both respect and affection, this leadership style can only last so long before the prince is inevitably overthrown.

Was Machiavelli a Malaysian high school teacher? He was really onto something. I often co-teach and I’ve noticed drastically different results from the teachers who have personal relationships with the students and those who yell over them and show little warmth. In all those years as a student I didn’t realize why I cared so much more about what some teachers thought than others. It was the teachers and professors I loved, and some I feared, whose assignments were always done first.

Teaching is fundamentally political. I’ve learned so much about how politics work during these first few months of teaching. Let’s remember that Julius Caesar became emperor of Rome by providing the famous “bread and circus” to the public. He paid out of pocket to get Netflix subscriptions and Chipotle with extra guac for every Roman plebe. Machiavelli and Caesar had it figured out all those years ago and I’m still catching up.

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